Sunday, October 10, 2010

Does my new passport endanger my life?

As promised, I am back with part deux of the story.

Desis often use the Indian passport as an excuse to justify life’s choices. Somebody we know, who makes it a point to be snarky every time my husband and I make travel plans, once told us that the minute they got their American passport, they would indulge in world travels. When I asked why they couldn’t travel on their Indian passport, the guy said, “It is a hassle getting visas.” The expense of visas is a different issue, but that’s not what this man meant. I chuckled internally. Who could explain to this person that the intent to travel precedes the passport you hold in you hand? Sure enough, despite their American passports, this couple has still maintained their travel-route: US – India – US. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to travel; however, it’s not appropriate to hold a country responsible for lack of your own desires.

As I had mentioned in my last post, I was in India recently. On my way back, I flew Turkish Airlines. With a sixty-minute or so layover at Istanbul airport, I was hoping to grab some baklavas and coffee at the airport. I was excited.

But then the flight from Bombay to Istanbul got delayed. Forget stuffing my face with baklavas, I barely had time to grab my carry-on from the airplane. I was so sure I was going to miss my connecting flight to NYC. And that wouldn’t have been fun.

Now let me preface by saying that I love Turkey: Great food, rich culture, tremendous hospitality, and marvelous history. My husband and I were there about five years ago. But whether you like a country or not, being stranded in a foreign nation is no fun.

After sprinting across like a mad dog and going through multiple security checks, I finally reached the travel desk. The gentleman behind the counter, with a warm smile, assured me that I wasn’t late; the flight to NYC was delayed. I decided to breathe. But then he asked me to show my passport. The minute I handed my American passport, the smile on this guy’s face morphed into resentment. He asked me to step aside. And then he shot multitude of questions at me like I was some sort of convict. I was so sure he would not let me board the flight and maybe just detain me forever. I was baffled. The Turks were so nice to us the last time we had vacationed there. Fortunately, while dishing out the third-degree, the official flipped over my Person of Indian Origin Card tied to my passport. I tell you, at that very moment, he gave me a look of “genuine love.” He asked me about India and chatted for a few minutes. I stood shocked through it all.

When I narrated my experience to my co-passenger (She’d worked for one of the American airlines’ for over forty years), she said to me: “It’s sad, but we are not liked in many parts of the world.” For a second I was confused; I couldn’t decipher what “we” represented: Indian or American. Eventually I realized what she meant by “we” and the "responsibilities" this new identity brought along with it. That’s when it dawned on to me, the last time I was in Istanbul I was still considered "an Indian" on official paper. Perhaps that’s the reason the local folks showered such generosity.

I leave for Europe tonight for this huge literary festival. In fact, I am participating in it! I feel humbled for being invited as one of the three chief-guests for VAANI’s book launch.

Anyway, one of the cities that I am visiting on this trip has a high level of terror alert for US citizens. My husband suggested I cancel my trip, but I refuse to live in fear. Maybe it’s my Indian determination or American confidence or adult stupidity, only time will tell. But as I swim through my two identities, I can't help but wonder at the irony – with my Indian passport, countries made it difficult for me to visit them, but I never once had to wonder about my safety when I finally did get the tourist visa. And with my American passport, I am welcomed into all countries, on paper, but in a surreptitious way.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.11.2010

“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open” Gunter Grass


Ernest Dempsey said...

Sweta, this indeed provokes some serious thougth. Our sense of comfort and belongingness to a 'whole' humanity is perforated with experiences like you describe here. Individual freedom is wrapped in an uneven cover of political flocking, without us intending or even knowing it. I hope the literary festival proves an entirely different kind of experience.

n said...

Thanks Sweta
Very interesting article. I often think about this all consuming issue for us indians living here.